I think it’s pretty much universally accepted that the biggest impediment to those with mental illness getting treatment is the stigma. This is true of most illnesses, though there does appear to be a hierarchy. At the top of the hierarchy are the most socially deplorable of the impulse control disorders such as pedophilia. After that it becomes a lot more subjective, and somewhat dependent on the crowd you run with. Most people with the major mental illnesses, i.e. schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, various psychoses, aren’t anxious to admit they have such conditions. Often part of the illness is a lack of insight that tells them they are not even ill. This is because the general public’s conception of psychosis is often something along the lines of an ax wielding maniac splattering blood on the walls. It’s rare to find someone who does work in mental health who is nervous at the prospect of being in an enclosed space with someone labeled psychotic.
Another group at near the top of the stigmatized list are us addicts. Even among those who suffer from addiction it’s not unusual to here descriptions of alcoholics as unkempt men in trench coats living under bridges begging for money to get a pint. Or crack addicts as scrawny disheveled women turning tricks on the corner for their next fix. Or heroin addicts as emaciated dirty people stealing sunglasses and purses from cars to sell for a bag they can shoot in their arm. Admittedly these stereotypes exist, but they make up only a fraction of the addicted world.
Most of us are otherwise normal people. You see us shopping for groceries, and going to movies, and picking our kids up from school. If you could see inside our heads you would find people tormented by a secret that makes us ashamed of who we are and often keeps us from getting help.
As I sit here in a crowded room, full of sixty-some children and adults waiting to start practice for a Christmas pageant, I just heard one of the adults talking about winos in the usual disparaging manner. He’s not a bad person at all, and the comment wasn’t out of bounds, it’s just the culture.
Until we find a way to speak up for ourselves, and show the world that addiction is a disease suffered by “normal” people, we will have to hide from the stigma. We will continue to shame ourselves.